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Kiwi designer targets lithium battery danger

A Victoria University lecturer has teamed up with a major international battery manufacturer to help solve the problems of kids getting horrible internal injuries from swallowing button batteries

They look like a shiny, silver button and they power anything from TV remote controls and calculators to hearing aids and singing birthday cards. They are also potentially deadly.

Swallow a coin-sized lithium battery – and children regularly do, as the cells are often in kids’ toys – and saliva triggers an electrical current, causing a chemical reaction. Within a couple of hours this can lead to severe burns to the oesophagus and the internal organs – and even death.

The problem is that mum and dad rarely see it happening, so diagnosis is tricky.

Which is where Victoria University design lecturer Jeongbin Ok comes in. Ok has developed an ink coating for lithium button batteries which reacts only to saliva, leaving a tell-tale stain in a child’s mouth, which is easy for a doctor to identify.

Now Ok has teamed up with a top international battery manufacturer to produce the coated batteries on a commercial scale. He says he can’t name the global company until the product has been released, but it makes about two million button batteries a year.

Production of the coated batteries should start next year.

Ok says the inspiration for the ink coating came while he was walking along the streets of Wellington.

“The idea came to me when I saw a boy with his mouth stained with colour. It was bright red and that’s when I thought of how to solve the problem.”

Jeongbin Ok with the new lithium battery packaging

Ok had read articles about the damaging effects of swallowing the batteries and began a three-year research project. His lab is located at Victoria University’s Kelburn campus, and deals with the chemical and colouring aspects of the design, but he is also working at the School of Design in Te Aro to develop child-safe packaging for the batteries.

Safekids Aotearoa director Ann Weaver says injuries related to kids swallowing button batteries is a growing concern. In New Zealand, around 20 kids are taken to Starship Children’s Hospital each year after swallowing a lithium battery, and the National Poisons Centre fields, on average, 90 calls a year.

An article in the Australian newspaper suggests up to five children a week arrive at emergency departments there having swallowed button batteries, and a four-year-old Queensland girl died last year.

Research suggests  the chance of a moderate to serious injury from swallowing a battery has increased more than five-fold over the last 20 years because batteries are now more powerful, and the OECD organised an International Awareness on Button Battery Safety week earlier this year.

A New Zealand arm of lithium battery safety awareness site The Battery Controlled was set up in June.

Partners of the site include Safekids Aotearoa, Energizer, Starship Children’s Hospital, Victoria University and the Ministry of Health.

Weaver says parents and doctors need to act quickly even if there is only a small possibility that a child has swallowed a button battery – and Ok’s ink coating invention could buy critical time.

“We are excited about the new design because it will help alert parents if their child has swallowed a coin lithium battery. Button batteries can get stuck and cause serious burn injuries within two hours. This results in severe tissue damage and can cause the death of a child.”

Ok says that after starting work on the coating development he took his project to Victoria University’s commercialisation office, Viclink, which advertised the design to several different battery manufacturers across the world, hoping to find a suitable commercial partner.

Now he has a joint development and licensing agreement with the international battery manufacturer, which has funded his research for the last three years.

“After I came up with the idea I knew I wanted an extra partner in the project.

Viclink help facilitate monthly meetings with the company and are actively involved. I cannot understand what they talk about when it comes to the legal things.”

Ok says royalties and other profits are yet to be negotiated.

“We will make another contract once it enters production. Still being in the design phase means we are not sure if it will be successful, so we will wait until production starts.”

The battery company has exclusive rights to the design, and whether other companies would take it on is something to discuss in the future, after production, Ok says. He is hopeful once the product is commercialised it will become an industry standard.

“I imagine [the design] only getting bigger and bigger… When the company starts production it could save a lot of lives.”

Ok’s research is currently focussed on creating a small ink coating machine that will fit into the existing battery manufacturing production line. He hopes producing the coated batteries will add only a marginal extra cost to production, so button batteries without the ink coating could be phased out.

“Nothing about the production will change, other than the ink being added. It could completely phase out the other batteries – but that won’t be seen until after production starts.”

Ok is planning to stay on as a lecturer at Victoria University for the time being and continues to work on other innovative design ideas, including shelves that work to stop products from falling during earthquakes.

“Nothing has been decided but I quite enjoy teaching here and working with students.”

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